The Tommi Forsstrom Hypothesis: Great Product Management at Scale Involves No Big Teams, Just a Lot of Small Teams in One

Tommi Forström is the CPO-in-residence of Produx Labs. This week on the Product Science Podcast, we talk about how product leadership can make a difference in organizations big and small. What can business leaders do to make a large organization feel small? We look at lessons that Tommi has learned along the way, and what they can mean for you.
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Questions We Explore in This Episode

Great Product Management at Scale Involves No Big Teams, Just a Lot of Small Teams in OneHow did Tommi come to product management? How did that coincide with an industry shift into prioritizing and hiring for product management? How did he make the transition from engineering to product? What’s the difference between product management and product leadership? Where do you find the next generation of product leaders?

How did Tommi start to see the impact of product leadership on the teams and organizations he worked with? How do you force yourself to ignore the details in order to see the big picture more clearly? How does Tommi avoid bike shedding?

How can business leaders balance their responsibilities to get things done with their need to trust their team? When can short-term failures lead to long-term success? How do these challenges change with scale? What are the key points that business leaders need to communicate to create focus and clarity throughout an organization?

What does Tommi think about when he’s building a team? What lessons has he learned as he’s gained more experience as a product manager? When does product management become change management? What problems occur when you try to make change through authority? What are the differences between how an engineer attacks a problem versus a product manager?

What did Tommi learn about working at large scale with Nokia? How do you operate at scale but make teams feel autonomous? How do you avoid unhealthy siloing? What companies have done this successfully? How do you set your organization up to allow small pockets of innovation to form? How do you use OKRs well?

Quotes From the Episode

“Whenever you see groups of people rallied together executing in magically aligned ways, it comes from a sense of focus . What are we exactly doing? Who are we doing it for? Why does it matter? Why are we different?” - Tommi Forsström Click To Tweet “What the product management job ends up often being is ridiculously hard...It really is painful and it requires enormous amounts of patience and understanding different personalities and how to interact with them.” - Tommi Forsström Click To Tweet “To have successful autonomous teams, you have to design the entire organization in support of that. And that's tough when you have to design teams that don't have to be synchronously dependent on each other.” - Tommi Forsström Click To Tweet “Nothing blocks innovation more than weird dependency chains and having to committee design things because you need to get 20 different people aligned at all times.” - Tommi Forsström Click To Tweet


Holly: Hi and welcome to the Product Science Podcast, where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through real conversations with the people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
Holly: I thought maybe we could start by a little bit of background. Tell us about your journey and how you ended up getting to be the product management leader that you are today.
Tommi: Yeah. My journey, I guess it’s one of the more default product manager journeys. I mean, as if one exists because as we all hopefully know, everybody comes into product in a very different way. But I came into it through software engineering. I started out as the rank and file software engineer in my early 20s in the late ‘90s. Most of my 20s, I just relatively unambitiously built software as just a coder drone. I had other passions in life, so I never really thought of that as a career. It was more of a way to make easy money.
Tommi: So by the time I got to my late 20s where I had to start actually thinking about adult things like careers and such, I started realizing I’m more interested in managing the work than doing the work. I got into this like sidetrack of engineering management then project management, and people didn’t really talk about product that much. Product was just a word in the role of product owner in the scrum process, but I still thought of like scrum as a software engineering thing back then.
Tommi: And I didn’t really think there was like a … back then it was like engineering orgs were decided what the roadmaps were and we’re on the hook for building things, and then you tacked on a little bit of design at some point to make it pretty. But all this stuff that we now understand to be in the product room was like an engineering thing. And then I found myself as a CTO at a small startup doing things that, of course a lot of it was building product and so forth, or building actual software. But a lot of my work was really product management. It was really figuring out how to execute on the company’s vision, what went into the road map, why, how we navigated our way forward, how we learn from our discoveries.
Tommi: And I started realizing that product is actually a job in and of itself. At that point, I think the industry had started waking up to that realization as well. And companies that weren’t Googles or Facebooks, we’re actually starting to hire product managers. And I started getting really interested in that as a career. And that got me on this transitional path to trying to navigate away from engineering because, of course, when you have an engineering background, engineering CV and just the list of engineering management and software engineer roles, people really don’t wanna hire you for anything else except like engineering jobs.
Tommi: I really had to prove myself as a leader in product because at the same time I was already in like 15 years into my career. So I didn’t really want to start from square one, but at the same time I didn’t really have my credentials yet in product. It was just like an amalgamation of roles in which I had been doing things like team building, process development, organization development. They just, none of them had a product stamp on it. So I had to really kind of navigate through a number of like hybrid roles and force people to put the word product into my role just to make sure it was like on a path, like a transformation to being like pure product.
Tommi: And then I found myself at a larger company, Shutterstock, where I very quickly shifted from just product management to focus more on managing product management and the people leadership, and the organization and process leadership side of it. And that really got me excited and I was exposed through a couple of really strong mentors often to the business side of things that my appetite grew to explore like well what is like what’s beyond product? Building products no longer seem to just fulfill my appetite, I was like I wanna build organizations, I wanna build companies, I wanna build businesses.
Tommi: Of course I’m making a very grand statement of it but still I felt like every time I get a step further, I started realizing how many more steps there are but that’s gotten me to where I am right now, which is “product leadership”. However, we understand that, which is equal parts product leadership, meaning like taking up bigger step back to understanding product strategy and one to three, to five year road maps, and trying to connect company missions to what we’re executing against. But at least to me more importantly also how do you groom people into product management?
Tommi: How do you expand their field of vision from what are people doing today to what are we doing this iteration, to what are we doing the next iteration? What are we doing this quarter? What are we doing this year? What are we doing in this company in general trying to bridge those steps, bringing those steps together and how do you bring groups of people together from different backgrounds, designers, engineers, product people, and then even though the wider range of stakeholders, whether it’s the sales and marketing and business and content operations, and whoever, how do you bring those people together to succeed and not just run in different directions? So those are the types of things I’m trying to work on today as much as possible.
Holly: Yeah, that’s really awesome. There were a couple of things in there that I’d love to hear some more about. I think one of the things that really interests me is this idea of when did you realize that product management was a thing and how did you realize it? Like when did you first hear the term? And who shared it with you and how crazy did everybody else think you were?
Tommi: I started executing on scrum quite early and that brought the word product in the guise of product owner into my field of vision, around 2007. I worked for a software agency that worked a lot for Nokia for years, and Nokia was among its other successes, a really early adopter and evangelist for the whole breadth of agile [inaudible] and executing on a pretty far scale outs from, especially back in those days before anybody had even thought about, well, what this … it was like scrum beyond a single product team mean.
Tommi: Nokia was really advanced in that. And that brought the whole concept of, hey, there’s maybe something that funnels this stuff together as a representative of the business, of the customer, of the whoever in the role of product owner. But in that space it’s still almost always ended up being like a business manager or it ended up being some sort of like GM or program manager, or something that ended up being the “product owner”. So I never thought of it as like a job.
Tommi: But then I think the first time that I really paid more attention to it was around early 2012, late 2011 when the startup I was working at, somebody was like, “Hey, y’all probably need a product manager, we need to hire a product manager.” And I was like, “What does this kind of person do?” And then that came like that thought pattern ended up with me and realizing like, “Wait, actually I will redo most of those things and the things that that person would be doing, I should actually be doing.” I was like, “Wow, well actually maybe this is the thing worth considering.” And that really rapid lead led to like, “Hey, but that’s actually what I wanna do a [inaudible 00:08:49].”
Holly: Yeah. I actually have a similar timeline as you’re telling me your story. I’m thinking back and I’m realizing I think it was around 2011 that I first said, “Hey, what I’m doing is product management.” And I was working at a small enough company that I was able to go to my bosses and say, “Can we make that my title?” And they said, “Sure.” I said, “Okay, I’m gonna tell you about what this means.”
Tommi: So weird how many stories, especially stories in product management usually involve a point where that person has said like, “Hey, why don’t we call me a product manager from here on out,” and let’s go change, oh that person is now on like letter one of their career into product management.
Holly: Yeah. I’ve also heard a lot of stories where somebody else says, Hey, I think you’re a product manager.” And sometimes from what I hear that that works out really well. It turns out that they just didn’t know about this career path, but it was really great for them. And sometimes I’ve heard stories where maybe that wasn’t quite the right fit, but somebody thought that would be for them because what they’re doing.
Tommi: Right. And then like quite often it can also … product can be a weird like a person who’s hopped from role to role, from department to department, never really finding a home, product usually ends up being that, well this is a little bit of everything solution to a lot of people, which is great. I mean, that’s great that product can essentially provide a home for all the misfits that don’t really feel at ease in any other thing. And it gives them the ability to mix and match a little bit of everything ultimate generalist role.
Holly: Yeah. Yeah, I think so too. I know that the going through those phases, you get to something where you’re interested in the bigger picture. And I’m curious to hear maybe what is a story that helped you realize how important that bigger picture is or how did you start to see that the impact of how the whole team is led affects the product that you cared about?
Tommi: Right. I think I, I struggled with that for a long time, especially coming from an engineering which is in some ways a very tough path coming product from. Because when you’re deeply steeped in ICU work and you’re in there in the day to day grind, building specific nitty gritty features and obsessing over how to execute on them, it’s really easy to not see the forest from the trees. And it’s been a big part of my journey has been to unlearn a lot of that stuff and almost force myself to ignore the details, which sometimes can turn against you. That’s one of the many, many, many, many, many ways in which I know I need to get better at my job, is I need to be a lot more detail oriented.
Tommi: But I would argue that that’s that state I’m using right now is [inaudible] for years now, I’ve meticulously forced myself to distance myself from the details. I have such a tendency to [inaudible] and try and get it to merge, and assert my past experience in people’s lives and works, which is will always turn against you.
Holly: Do you have any specific stories or memories that help us see how that turned out when it didn’t turn out so well?
Tommi: I don’t wanna quote any specific … I’m trying to find the right balance between being way too abstract but also not recounting to specific painful memories. But it’s just whenever I engage with engineering teams, I always need to keep myself in check, not to be like, “Well, y’all should build this thing,” and then almost just be one step away from submitting a pull request myself. Because I did engineering for a long time and I was a pretty okay engineer. And I know my way around a lot of specific topics and I could still probably would look at dusting off of my skills, could still kind of convert back to engineering.
Tommi: It’s really tough for me when I … engineering is highly contextual, it’s different everywhere, depending on the history of the stack technologies involved, the people involved. It’s easy to just peanut gallery throw in solutions out of context. I just think that’s some of the most unfortunate frictions of my life, almost always stemmed from me trying to assert my past experiences. “Like y’all should do this or you also do that because blah, blah, blah.” And that almost never ends well. So really just being able to say like, “Here’s the context, here’s the desired outcome. Find your own path you have, we’ve hired you because you’re great. I’m just gonna shut up now.”
Tommi: And that’s true for product managers that have reported into me true for engineers, designers, whoever that we tried to lead. It’s just, you need to know when to walk away and let people find their own path.
Holly: Yeah. I definitely hear that a lot, especially when I talk to other people who came through engineering as their way here. That it’s hard because you feel like you wanna help, right? And you’re like, “Can I help you with this?” And then you’re like, “Oh wait, no, actually maybe helping is me stepping back and saying, “Here’s the context. You need to make the plan yourself.”
Tommi: Right. And it’s daunting though. Like this is something that a lot of CEOs struggle with, with building companies because they have a very meticulous vision and they probably have a very clear picture in their heads about how they would execute on that vision. But then they have to hire people and they have to try and articulate that vision to them without being too prescriptive, like allowing professional people to come in and somehow extract their excellence on it. But still you have to relinquish control and let people maybe make a couple of mistakes here and there but still try and have the safety net in place so that those mistakes don’t end up costing the firm.
Holly: Yeah, really.
Tommi: It really, the more I observed CEOs in action, the more I start empathizing over how massively painful and difficult that must be. Yeah. You really have to trust people and people don’t always live up to that trust. And not everybody … like we always have these beautiful mantras of like you give people space and you give them the ability to seek out the solution themselves and they’ll soar, and they don’t always do that and you have to still give that space, but you have to be able to also handle the negative situations. But quite often, of course, like when people fail, it can usually be drawn back to your failure to set the context and set the expectation, and set the guidelines right.
Holly: Yeah. There’s always something we could be doing better. They could always look at what happened and say, “What could I have done differently to make that go the way I wanted?”
Tommi: Absolutely.
Holly: Yeah. I’m curious as you talk about that picture, it makes me think of places that I’ve been where either the CEO or the leadership did a great job and everyone understood where they were going. And on the other side, places where maybe people were very confused and that caused a lot of challenges. I’m curious to hear from your background, like what … you don’t have to share specifics of places, but what did it look like when it was done well? What were some practices that somebody, whether it was yourself or somebody else on the leadership team, did to help the people in the company understand the context and the vision.
Tommi: That’s really, I mean, in a way that’s like a million dollar question because if there was an easy answer, it would be much easier to build wildly successful companies, because a lot of failure and success really boils down to this difficult question. I hate to try and answer a really complex problem with simplistic answers, but I do think it really boils down to the leadership’s ability to focus. Almost always when I’ve seen it go wrong, it’s been either wishy washy in ambiguous mission setting or plaque or focus, like vision and mission statements that are just littered with comments and ands and just or like way too abstract words where it’s just like, we basically do everything for everyone.
Tommi: And at that point, no roadmap will save you, no attempt downstream to make it more crystal clear will do anything. Focus and clarity, and sense of purpose has to start from the top to a point where it feels overblown, where it really feels like, “Well, this sounds too simplistic.” But it really like being able to rally the troops, especially when you’re starting to talk about companies that are bigger than that you can fit in one room, like you start talking about over 50, over 100, over 500, over 1,000. You can’t just trust word of mouth and a couple of pretty slides here and there to carry the mission, it has something that not only you can narrow to a person sitting in front of you, but you trust that that person can then tell 10 people who can then tell 10 people, and that message will stay the same.
Tommi: And that requires a ridiculous amount of simplification. It has to be a point that you can just hammer and hammer, and hammer on over and over again. And usually whenever you see groups of people rallied together in executing a successful and magically aligned ways, it really comes from a sense of focus that what are we exactly doing? Who are we doing it for? Why does it matter? Why are we different? And if those points aren’t hit in a very unambiguous way, part of the game will already have been lost.
Holly: Yeah, definitely. I think you’re right. I wish they were easier answers, right? And then you just say, “Hey, here’s what it looks like.” Then everyone can just go and do it. But it’s so complex because there’s so many people involved in a company of that size.
Tommi: Right. And contexts. Like another thing I’ve learned in my journeys is that context is king, quite often, and this is something that we’re all, especially in product management, I feel like we’re often guilty of that. We love to find universal truisms that you can distill in 140 characters or 280 characters. Now we’ve given ourselves a little bit more slack, but like be simple truisms that we feel like can be extrapolated to every single thing, when in fact most problems and most solutions, and most successes are highly contextual, and what’s worked somewhere doesn’t necessarily work at all in a different context. And that context doesn’t even have to be like night and day. It can be just like a minor difference and suddenly you have to start from scratch.
Holly: Yeah, definitely. So what are some of the things that you plan to do the next time that you’re helping somebody build a great team or a great organization that you’ve figured out maybe through trial and error or through getting it wrong, figured like, “Okay, next time I’m not gonna do it that way or I’m gonna do this next time.
Tommi: I guess building on the whole context I king thing. I think I’ve been saying this for a long time, but I think I finally really feel it or I have internalized this, but I’m actually gonna listen. I mean, start from a lot of listening. I think it’s been a part of just my growing as a or maturing as a professional where like the earlier you are in your career and the more hungry you are to show your worth, the faster you’re gonna jump into asserting yourself and like, “All right, let me show you how things are done and let me like rah rah rah. I’m just gonna like run the show.”
Tommi: But then the earlier you jump into the driver’s seat and you wanna call the shots, the less context you have and the less awareness you have of what are the obstacles and what are the opportunities you have as a change agent. Because ultimately, like that’s a lot of what we call product management still revolves around how do we change the environment to one that actually allows for good product management work. Quite rarely you can just go into a company and just like, “Cool, let’s start product managing,” and then magically things will happen.
Tommi: Quite often it’s like an exercise in change management. How do we change the organization, how we change the processes, the communication, the culture, the whole nine yards. And product management in an ideal scenario is like it’s easy, it’s fun, it’s really cushy. But that said though, that environment exists almost nowhere. So change match or change agency, which is like what our job ends up often being is ridiculously hard and not just hard, it’s hideous work. It really is like painful and it requires enormous amounts of patience and understanding different personalities and how to interact with them.
Tommi: And me being a Finnish human being, I really suck at that and it’s really like a concerted effort to like overcome my cultural hindrances. But I really think that I’m finally mature enough that I’m comfortable in just leaning back and listening, and understanding. You can only do that if you start understanding what platform are you building on. Because almost always when you just start brute force change agents thing or like changing through authority, you start running into people who behave irrationally when like you’re, “Oh, but this person should like benefit from these things that I’m trying to do.”
Tommi: But what you’re not realizing is you’re either insulting decisions they’ve done in the past or you’re not articulating well enough the value that they’re gonna get out of this, or they’re so mired in failure that they think that this is just yet another distraction that will fail. Or it’s putting them in jeopardy or their role and their position in wherever they are in jeopardy. Or there’s just like a myriad of things you don’t realize when you’re just approach things as like abstract problems to solve are almost like computer that doesn’t boot up.
Holly: Right. Yeah, that’s one of the things that I see a lot and that I used to be guilty of too, is that mentality of like there’s a problem here. We need to fix it. Let’s attack it the way an engineer would attack a problem, and forgetting the human element of the human equation. It’s not just about optimizing the company’s resources and saying, “Well, why can’t you change what you’re doing because we’re wasting money over there?” There’s people and you need the people to make up the company so you have to work with the people.
Tommi: Right. And people unfortunately react really badly to abrupt change. And that’s one part that I’ve found specifically difficult, is that quite often the things that we need to do are actually quite dramatic changes where multiple things change at once and you actually only get value from it if almost all of those changes are done. It’s like incremental change has almost zero perceivable value but you have to be able to push incremental change to make it more palatable for people to have to change one small behavior at a time.
Tommi: But usually to justify change, you need to see like perceivable improvements. So that’s like a half thing to … like tough needle to thread when you need to make a big change, which is hard psychologically. So you need to make small changes, but those are hard if there’s no clear perceivable value. So how do you then help people, and not just like single people, but like larger groups of people who all have different hopes, dreams and mental states or mental preparedness for change. How do you usher all of those people through a major change. Those are really difficult parts.
Holly: Yeah. And they take so much patience. It’s not the glamorous side of the job.
Tommi: Nope.
Holly: I’m wondering if there’s anything in this journey, you mentioned a couple of different size companies like consulting, working with Nokia, small companies, bigger companies like Shutterstock. Have you noticed anything that you think really makes it different to be a product manager at these different sized companies?
Tommi: For sure. I mean, size is definitely one big factor in how different the work can be, but there’s a lot of other company characteristics that also impact of what it’s like to product management. A lot of the companies that do like that create good product management environments at scale usually adhere to one of my favorite Twitter jokes that there’s no big data, there’s just a lot of small data. And the same can be said about teams. Like there’s no big teams, there’s just a lot of small teams in one.
Tommi: So if you can start scaling by divide and conquer, and allowing for smaller teams to emerge and then find ways to usher them together and align them, that’s how you’re gonna create success. But then quite often in larger companies, you see just a boatload of small teams that are so deeply interconnected that you can’t really lead them without leading every single one of them and handholding every step of the way, which ends up being highly unscalable and usually susceptible to disaster.
Tommi: So, yeah, I mean when it comes to scale, like I really always appreciated the way Nokia approach and like they … when we talk about scale, they were ridiculous. That scale. We’re talking about like 2006, 2007 when Nokia was at 55% market share over global handset markets. We’re talking ridiculous size and market dominance that’s nobody’s ever going to have in the mobile phone space. They were like some of the initiatives that we’re doing or like there was like a team in Bangalore or a team in Boston, a team in Helsinki, a team in Berlin and then operating on this big scrum of scrums.
Tommi: But they really did do autonomous teams working on clearly defined missions that then would ultimately lead ladder up to a larger vision well. But then again in hindsight, if you look at Nokia like product strategy in terms of like, “Oh, there’s a different mobile phone model for every single micro segment. I know we’re pushing like 50 different devices out every year and nobody really knows. We’re naming them XF one, five, seven, three G you something and nobody really understands what the heck differentiates what handset. And all this one comes with music and this one comes with a keyboard, this one comes with a flip flop something.”
Tommi: So I mean they definitely missed the cue in terms of like catering to what the market really needs, but they at least they were operating very well even if the outcome wasn’t that pretty. But that definitely taught me a lesson or two about like how you can actually just operate at scale while still making it feel not at scale on the grassroots. Which I think that’s an important parts about success at scale, is that on the ground you don’t really even necessarily realize you’re a part of some. Like on your day to day, your most important thing is the 10 or so people immediately around you. And if the machinery’s led properly, you can just live in that bubble and not worry between macro and micro all the time.
Holly: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s like the gold standard that people are striving for, right? Where you have a such a big organization, there’s so many resources that you can attack really big problems, but everybody on the team feels like they’re part of a small team and they know what they’re doing, and they’re able to move towards it. And if they feel like they need to change, they can go to another team and the organization and it’s almost like having a new job, but they’ve still got that larger family.
Tommi: Right. But not a lot of people are willing to do the work to make that possible because ultimately like what people aren’t telling you is you can’t just like draw a new org chart and be like, “Okay, now we have all these little micro teams and they’re all super autonomist and no, you all have fun.” It usually ends up in really unhealthy siloing or fragmentation of nothing’s aligned, nothing’s directionally compatible and just ends up in weird warring micro factions in the company because in order to do that and in order to achieve what Facebook and Spotify, and whoever who are doing autonomous yet aligned teams at scale have done.
Tommi: Which is really design the entire organization, the entire tech stack, the entire product architecture, everything in support of that. And that’s tough when you have to design teams that don’t have to be synchronously dependent on each other. That allows for asynchronous dependencies, that allows for internal product suites but not like internal product offerings over internal service organizations where whenever you’re trying to create value, you’re always dependent on a dozen teams to deliver. So that’s hard and it gets really hard to enable autonomous value creation.
Holly: Yeah, yeah. That’s a big organizational challenge that the companies that have managed to do it pretty well are totally killing it. They’re growing so fast, they’re huge names. Everybody is excited about what they’re doing or maybe scared. But there’s a lot of companies that try to do that and fail along the way.
Tommi: Right. But they haven’t followed that like whether Pixar rule or whoever is of like trying to identify blockers for innovation and attacking them ruthlessly, because nothing blocks innovation more than weird dependency chains and having to committee design things because you need to get 20 different people aligned at all times. Innovation happens in small pockets, in like high performing small teams. So if you’re really committed to removing obstacles from innovation, you’re gonna try your darnedest to set your organization up in a way that allows for those kinds of pockets to form.
Tommi: And allowing that’s heightened sense of ownership, heightened sense of focus space for innovation, all that stuff to really come to be as opposed to allowing like weird dependency chains and these only way to create value is to like rally have to company in support of your initiative. There’s no way to innovate in that environment whatsoever.
Holly: So one of the things that I think has a role in or I’m curious your thoughts on it, does it have a role is this idea [inaudible 00:34:18], right? Like we hear a lot about objectives and key results in certain teams that are doing it. Do you think that plays into creating that kind of environment for the autonomous teams and how does it?
Tommi: Yeah, I mean, okay. Ours are definitely a hot topic and I know that for almost any trendy tool out there, there’s gonna be far more loud critics than supporters of those tools. And like okay, ours are definitely one of those where 9 times out of 10 when you witness them in the wild. It’s just like face palm city. Okay, ours are like it’s a really amazing tool but it’s another one of those things where the responsibility of wielding them, like you need to do more than like a 10 minute training to understand what they are.
Tommi: But not a lot of companies, not a lot of leadership teams, not a lot of like individuals really wanna pay that price of understanding how to execute on them and what’s the real value you get out of them is. And they end up being like a performance management tool or like, “Oh my bonuses are tied to this or that metric that metrics that the OKR dictates. Or they’re like use as like a road mapping tool where most of your OKRs are just like build this system, build that system, blah, blah, blah.”
Tommi: And it’s not like that’s really missing the point or they end up being so abstract that they don’t mean anything to make a great business and revenue up by 500% and people are call. Whatever I do has no direct relevance to that. So like [inaudible] is ridiculously hard, but when you get there, they’re very powerful. Like if you get to that point where every person is a part of a team that has a set of OKRs where or when I say set, that can also mean one OKR, and in a good focus scenario it actually is one OKR where the objective is something so aspirational and qualitative and inspirational.
Tommi: It’s really like, “Yes, this is what we’re doing,” and then the KRs are clearly quantitative, clearly something that is a little bit scary and worrisome, and really pushes people to like strive for greatness. And then most importantly, they ladder up to something bigger in a way that makes sense. But every person, when they look at their teams’ OKR, should feel like they’re not just expected to execute against it, but they’re also empowered to autonomously deliver it.
Tommi: But quite often it ends up being like, cool, the engineering team was beholden to our revenue target but then the sales team didn’t deliver or whatever weird, like your OKRs is really something that you can even really move the needle on or like [inaudible] product team is expected to raise a certain business metric, but everybody knows that the easiest way to do that is to deliver a new tool to marketing. But then the delay of that gain is actually more like capex style where the benefit is not … doesn’t materialize in this quarter. It materialized as, as a percentage increase over the following quarters, which is like cool. Like that OKR doesn’t translate to what we understand to be the smartest thing to do for the business right now.
Tommi: So in those situations where it’s like the OKRs don’t really mean a thing or they push you to do things that you know are not necessarily the smartest thing for the business, it’s like, “Great, why did we spend all this time doing this?”
Holly: Yeah, sometimes it’s just a quarterly planning repackaged.
Tommi: Right. Absolutely. Absolutely it is. And then what you end up getting is OKRs that aren’t really OKRs, and quarterly plans aren’t really quarterly plans, and kind of get the worst of all worlds involved.
Holly: More confusion and-
Tommi: And more people who are like, “Oh, OKR sucked. We tried them and they really just sucks.” [inaudible] but you didn’t really do OKRs, you did poorly planning in disguise.
Holly: exactly. I think I’m almost running out of time, so I wanna see if there’s any final thoughts that you wanna share? We’ve talked a lot about challenges and I’m guess I’m curious to go the other way. Like what excites you about being in product management?
Tommi: The pace at which product management as a competency and as a skill, and as a craft and an art form is developing, it’s like we’ve gone from product management being like a thing that nobody even knew they needed to now being a thing that every company already knows that they need, to then being on the cusp of people actually understanding what product does. [crosstalk 00:39:29]. Nowhere near that. I mean, we’re still at a point where every single company has a drastically different understanding of what product is, but I think it’s like the story around it is tightening every single … I don’t know, I was gonna say a year, but almost month.
Tommi: Like we’re seeing more and more thought leaders emerge. We’re seeing more and more people start like banging on the drum of like this is what product does, this sometimes does. This is what it definitely doesn’t do. Starting to see products, successful product people, successful product stories that clearly tell the story of like what we do. There’s a whole lot of work to do. Like there’s a whole lot of internal debates in the product community depending on what flavor of product person are you. Some people are like, “Oh, we shouldn’t be involved in process at all.”
Tommi: And some people, myself, sometimes included are like, “I definitely wanna be very involved in process because ultimate … not because I think process is a part of product, ultimately isn’t, but when process is effed up, product is the one that’s suffering, but it’s almost like I really implicitly wanna be a part of it because if it’s not going well, if it’s or if it’s something that’s like, “Oh, that’s engineering’s problem,” that’s really missing the mark. Product’s job is to bring all these different skillsets together and if we try and push the art of aggregating these skills to other people, we’re not gonna be in an environment where our job is gonna matter.
Tommi: So just these little things of how does our industry work? How do we work cross functionally? What is products’ contribution to it? I’m really happy to see it move forward and that’s really exciting because I know that that means that I’m gonna have much more fun jobs in the future and people will … our discipline will have much more fun and much more successful careers moving forward.
Holly: Yeah. Awesome. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate. It was great to talk with you again.
Tommi: My pleasure. Thank you so much and good luck with the podcast in the future.
Holly: Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Tommi Forsstrom. You can find him on Twitter at Forssto, F-O-R-S-S-T-O. Or you can use the same handle on medium and tiny letter to follow him online. Thanks for listening.
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